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2003 FORD ESCAPE Review - Base Price $18,800

Best in its class.


2003 ford escape Review

The Ford Escape is one of the best of the small, affordable SUVs, assuming that off-road travel isn't a priority. The Escape offers agile handling on paved and unpaved roads. It accelerates briskly when equipped with the optional V6 engine. It rides smoothly and its refined interior seats four people comfortably. Folding down the rear seats reveals a flat, moderately sized cargo area. Best of all, its price is relatively low.

The Escape was an all-new vehicle in 2001. For 2003, all models have upgraded interior materials for better appearance and feel. The seat fabrics, floor mats and door trim are of higher quality and are available in new patterns and hues. The center stack, door bezels and window switches are painted for a two-tone interior effect, and the window switches are illuminated for nighttime convenience.

For 2003, Ford has added an up-market Limited trim level, and a limited-edition option package called Midnight.


With 133.9 cubic feet of total interior volume, the Escape is among the most spacious of the small SUVs. The rear cargo area offers 69.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, just the thing for a day of antiquing. Even with the split 60/40 rear seats set up to accommodate up to five passengers, Escape still provides 33 cubic feet of cargo space.

Escaping into or out of the front seats is made easier by low door sills and wide door openings. In the front-seat area, the Escape is almost as roomy as Ford's mid-size Explorer. The rear seats offer good knee room.

Ford has significantly upgraded the Escape's interior for 2003. Both XLS and XLT benefit from new interior fabrics and materials with improved quality and feel. There's also a new finish for center stack, and now the front-door power window and lock switches light up to make them easier to find. Side-impact airbags are standard on Limited and Midnight, optional ($345) on XLS and XLT.

White-faced instruments, in vogue these days, are set in a straightforward instrument panel. The audio system and heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls in the center stack are angled slightly toward the driver to ease reach while driving. Ford engineers say they tested the placement of the controls by using blindfolded occupants, but don't try that while driving.


The Ford Escape is wider than other compact SUVs, and this gives it a look that is both aggressive and well planted. Ford designers worked to balance the confidence and ruggedness of a big SUV with a sportier image of agility and fun. The Escape's forward-poised stance, large wheel lips, wide body cladding and integrated bumper guard lend a functional appearance, while its short front and rear overhangs add to its sporting appeal. The Escape looks bolder and more aggressive than the Honda CR-V, with a strong family resemblance to Ford's larger Explorer and Expedition.

Being able to see the leading edge of the hood from the driver's seat makes the Escape easier to maneuver in tight places, whether you're deep in the woods or (more likely) in a tight big-city garage. If you are deep in the woods, its 7.8 inches of ground clearance may help clear some obstacles. Outside door handles are easy to grab and feel like they're going to last.

Accessories from Ford Outfitters include a snap-in pet barrier and a system to haul two mountain bikes in the cargo area. Bike racks can also be mounted on the roof; the standard roof rack with crossbars holds up to 100 pounds. We don't like the idea of compromising an SUV's ground clearance with running boards, but Ford claims that the running boards on the Escape do not reduce ground clearance. They are designed to make it easier to lift kayaks, snowboards and other toys onto the roof rack. The rear bumper is also designed to aid roof access.

New for 2003 is an industry-first, dual-loading rack, which Ford calls the No Boundaries Rack System. The No Boundaries Rack System offers a unique sliding rail from the roof that can pull down vertically across the rear of the vehicle and lock into the bumper. This provides two separate loading surfaces: a more traditional one on the roof and an additional one across the rear. When not in use, the sliding rails can be stored within the conventional roof portion of the rack system.


Sport-utility vehicles are not sports cars. In spite of that, California's twisting Highway 1 is an enjoyable drive in the Ford Escape. Handling is relatively taut, without the mushiness that characterizes larger SUVs with big off-road tires and long-travel suspensions. On muddy fire roads pocked with puddles and potholes, the Escape is a blast. It's one of the best-handling SUVs in this class, much better than a Jeep Liberty, better than a Toyota RAV4, quicker than a Honda CR-V, but not as agile as a Subaru Forester.

Steering is responsive. It feels direct and accurate with no dead spot in the center. There's enough feeling in the steering to impart a sense of control. Though this is not a sports car, the tires grip respectably in paved corners. When pushed beyond their limit, the front tires start slipping before the rear tires, just as with most front-wheel-drive sedans. This is called understeer, and it is intuitive and predictable. The Escape provides surprisingly good transient response in a series of left-right-left corners. This permits quick, yet smooth, driving that will not upset passengers.

The V6 engine delivers good acceleration. While there's no such thing as too much power, it never feels lacking in the Escape. The engine and four-speed automatic transmission communicate and work well together. The transmission shifts smoothly up and down, and chooses gears appropriately for the situation. The engine's broad power band never lugs or strains. This isn't the smoothest V6 on the market, nor is it the roughest. But it is smoother and more satisfying than the four-cylinder engines found in most small sport-utilities. (We have not tested the four-cylinder Escape.)

Escape's brakes are smooth and responsive. ABS comes into play just when expected and is detectable by the familiar pulsating sensation.

As mentioned, the Escape handles well on gravel roads, but it is lacking in serious off-road situations. Its front-drive platform leaves it spinning its wheels on rough, loose, steep trails. The suspension does not have the articulation and travel needed for rugged terrain and there is no low-range set of gears. For serious off-road capability, look to the larger Jeep Liberty, the extreme Jeep Wrangler, or the luxurious and versatile Land Rover Freelander. For everyday road travel, however, the Ford Escape is an excellent choice.


The Ford Escape is one of the best of the small, on-road SUVs. The available V6 engine provides the Escape with the most power in its class. A four-wheel independent suspension and unit-body construction make it handle almost as well as a car. A car-like ride makes it easy to live with. It isn't designed for serious off-road driving, nor are its direct competitors. Overall, we feel the Escape is the best SUV in its class.

Find more reviews at New Car Test Drive. The wolrd's leading provider of Automotive Reviews.

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